By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Finally, an authentic scandal: incompetence and deception at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Given what we know so far, more heads need to roll — and a criminal investigation should be launched.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of so many faux scandals that it’s hard to recognize the real thing. Yes, the Internal Revenue Service seems to have given extra scrutiny to conservative organizations, but it gave extra scrutiny to liberal groups, too. Yes, “Fast and Furious” was a mistake, but it wasn’t some kind of sinister plot. No, it doesn’t matter whether the evil people who took four American lives in Benghazi are called terrorists, militants or simply killers.
The VA situation, however, looks more serious day by day. If VA hospitals really are falsifying records to disguise lengthy waiting times — and if veterans are dying as a consequence — then President Obama needs to bring in new management to fix the problems, and fast.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, speaking Sunday on “Face the Nation,” described Obama as “madder than hell” about the VA scandal. By now, we should all be used to the fact that Obama is never what you would call demonstrative with his anger, at least publicly. No frothing, no foaming, no gnashing of teeth. I take McDonough at his word that the president is royally steamed.
We should also be used to the fact that Obama is extremely loyal to the members of his team. Despite the disastrous launch of the HealthCare.gov website, the president declined to dismiss Kathleen Sebelius as head of the Department of Health and Human Services, allowing her eventually to leave on her own terms.
I don’t see how he can take a similar path, however, with Gen. Eric Shinseki at the VA. Sebelius at least made it clear that she understood the magnitude of the problem her department faced. Shinseki thus far has failed to telegraph comprehension, much less inspire confidence.
“Any allegation, any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell,” Shinseki told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week. I doubt there has ever been a four-star general who didn’t know how to get angry, but Shinseki’s ire had to be drawn out of him. If he was seething inside, he hid it well.
Perhaps that’s unfair; perhaps he should be evaluated only on his performance at work, not on whether he emotes before the television cameras. “This is not a job,” he said at the hearing. “I’m here to accomplish a mission I think [veterans] critically deserve and need, and I can tell you over the past five years we’ve done a lot to make things better.”
The all-too-obvious rejoinder is: Not enough.
The allegation that VA officials in Phoenix cooked the books to cover up the fact that veterans had to suffer unacceptably long waiting times before they received care — and that 40 veterans died while enduring such delays — is shocking in isolation. But if reports are true that there may have been similar practices in Albuquerque, and perhaps in other cities, the problems begin to look systemic.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said there is “solid evidence” of “a pattern, apparently, of manipulating lists, gaming the system … which is not just an impropriety or misconduct, it is potentially a criminal act.”
The VA’s Office of Inspector General is on the case, Shinseki told senators. But I agree with Blumenthal’s assessment that it’s time to bring in some outside help, such as the FBI, and that the investigation needs to ascertain not just whether rules were broken but whether crimes were committed.
Shinseki inherited an agency ill-equipped to cope with the tsunamis that were about to overwhelm it: the return of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rapidly growing medical needs of Vietnam veterans now entering their later years.
It is important to keep the VA scandal in context. Conservatives who crow that this shows government cannot competently provide health care are wrong. VA hospitals see more than 200,000 veterans a day and rank among the highest in the nation in customer satisfaction, according to surveys.
At issue is how long veterans have to wait before they can receive that care — and whether employees are lying about those waiting times, with the result that people are dying.
The solemn promises we make to our veterans cannot be broken. There’s no need for histrionics from President Obama. But he does need to clean house.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.